Ministers concerned about the growing scale of cheating at university have announced a crackdown on so-called “essay mill” websites that provide written-to-order papers for students to submit as part of their degrees.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has asked student bodies and institutions for guidance to help combat “contract plagiarism”, where tens of thousands of students are believed to be buying essays for hundreds of pounds a time.
A report by the independent university regulator last summer found that essay writing websites often advertise their services to students for a fee and many promote “plagiarism-free guarantees” or essays tested against plagiarism detection software.
According to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), there are now more than 100 essay mill websites in operation. The amount they charge is dependent on the complexity of the essay and tightness of deadline, ranging from several hundred pounds for a single essay to £6,750 for a PhD dissertation.
'It's not a victimless crime' – the murky business of buying academic essays
In Britain it is left to individual institutions to develop their own plagiarism policies. But in its research, the QAA recommended new laws to make it illegal to help students “commit acts of academic dishonesty for financial gain”, punishable with fines of up to £5,000. It suggested the UK look to New Zealand, where essay mills have been fined and their assets have been frozen.
The Guardian was on Monday able to access several websites that offered essays on most if not all degree subjects. Most sites required a name, email address and debit card details to purchase an essay, with no restriction on the area of study being requested.
On one site, buyessay.co.uk, students were required to enter the requested attainment level for the essay, the desired length and deadline as well as a description of the assignment. Most sites also asked the desired format of the essay, including line spaces and footnote style. The prices quoted to the Guardian varied from £36 for a two-page essay to £154 for 1,500 words.
The buyessay.co.uk site also carried a message saying use of the essay writing service did not constitute cheating.
The new guidance, expected to be available for the beginning of the 2017-18 teaching year, is to include tough penalties for those who use the websites and offer more information on the potential impact on students’ future careers.
Calling on universities to do more to crack down on contract plagiarism, Johnson said: “This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it.”
Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and one of the UK’s leading experts on essay cheating, said that while universities had anti-plagiarism software to detect copying of academic texts, they could not prevent the process of contract cheating, where students employ ghostwriters to complete new assignments.
“We think this is a substantial problem affecting universities, that students can go and pay other people to do their assignments for them,” he said.
Working in collaboration with Prof Robert Clarke of Birmingham City University, Lancaster identified at least 30,000 examples of students purchasing essays online.
“We’ve been looking at sites where students publicly post their request, but a lot of sites are hidden so that number is just a tiny proportion of all the work,” he said. “We’re confident there’s tens of millions of pounds of business going through essay mills sites every year. It’s big business.
“Advertising appears around university campuses, we observed people giving out business cards in car parks, people putting up flyers on lampposts, even sometimes getting their adverts into secure parts of university buildings.”
The sites are based all over the world, Lancaster said, and quite often the same company operates under a number of domains. “We can put legislation in place to prevent sites from operating from within the UK but they could just move overseas,” he said, adding that the focus could be placed on tackling UK-based advertising of the services on campuses, search engines and social media.
The QAA has been tasked with taking action against the online advertising of the services and to work with international agencies to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, an amendment has been proposed by Lord Storey, co-chair of the committee on education, families and young people, to the higher education and research bill that would make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services.
“It’s not illegal for sites to offer to write model essays, it’s not illegal for somebody to buy an essay, but of course if they buy an essay, hand it in, and get a degree they don’t deserve and use that degree to get a job, then there is some kind of fraudulent transaction going on there,” Lancaster said. “I do think universities should do more to tackle essay mills and work with students but universities also need support from the government and a legal framework, it’s a two-way street.”
The government’s move also comes a month after researchers at Swansea University recommended the state bring in tougher new regulations to impose fines on essay mills after concluding the 2006 Fraud Act was unlikely to be effective in tackling the issue, largely due to disclaimers and caveats used by the companies.
“We would hope that a legal approach would at least act as a deterrent to would-be users of these services and serve as a lever to change behaviour,” Michael Draper and Philip Newton, co-authors of the report, wrote in a blogpost.
“However, legal changes alone are not the answer to this problem. We need to ensure that assessments are rigorous and less open to completion by a third party ... we need to make sure it is preferable for students to ‘do the right thing’.”
Ian Kimber, QAA’s director of universities, quality enhancement and standards, said: “Essay mills are a major challenge for universities and colleges because, unlike other forms of cheating, the practice is notoriously difficult to detect.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, emphasised that submitting work written by someone else constituted cheating, and said she would continue to work with QAA and the National Union of Students to update sector guidance in the area.
“Universities have severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own,” Goodfellow added. “Such academic misconduct is a breach of an institution’s disciplinary regulations and can result in students, in serious cases, being expelled from the university.”
It takes about three minutes to order a final dissertation for an English literature degree at the UK Essays website. I pick my country, subject and required grade. I go for a 2:1, choose a length – let’s say 5,000 words – a seven-day deadline, and watch the price calculator hit £687 (or £1,236 for a two-day turnaround). Click “next step” and I can enter my topic before being matched with a suitable writer, who will produce an essay “personalised to my requirements”. It would come with a series of promises. “The work we produce is guaranteed to meet the grade you order, or you get your money back.” It will also be “100% free from plagiarism” – and on time.
All of this would be totally legal and, the owners of UK Essays insist, ethical, too – because what its customers are definitely not supposed to do is submit the work as their own. “Our essays … are the best, most useful study aid in the world,” says Daniel Dennehy, chief operating officer at All Answers, the Nottinghamshire company that owns UK Essays. “They increase any student’s understanding of a topic, which subsequently improves their ability to write an excellent, unique answer of their own.”
UK Essays says it sold 16,000 assignments last year, up from 10,000 five years earlier, written by a network of 3,500 researchers. The company’s “fair use policy”, which requires a click away from the order page, spells out the rules. “Even if you did make minor alterations to the researcher’s work, this would still be considered plagiarism,” it warns. But, Dennehy accepts, “I have worked here for nine years and I am not naive enough to think that all our clients use the work correctly.” He declines to estimate what proportion of his customers are cheats.
The growth of these sites, which are known as essay mills, is now troubling the higher levels of government. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has appealed to student bodies and universities to help tackle so-called “contract plagiarism”, which he sees as a growing threat to academic integrity. New guidelines, to be published in time for the next academic year, are expected to recommend a new sector-wide policy, and the government has not ruled out beefing up the law.
The intervention follows a report published last summer by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which maintains standards in higher education. It found that anti-plagiarism policies were variable across universities, and that fraud law isn’t robust enough to legislate against the misuse of essay mills. It also suggested a ban on advertising, and explored the role of search engines, which present hundreds of results to students looking for essays.
The government believes there are more than 100 mills in operation, churning out anything from B-grade GCSE coursework (£106 on UK Essays) to a 100,000-word PhD in criminal law (£82,238). “But our research suggests it’s more like 1,000 sites,” says Prof Phil Newton, the director of learning and teaching at Swansea University and an expert in academic plagiarism. Previous estimates suggest that more than 20,000 students a year in the UK are paying for essays to get degrees. The true figure may be much higher.
“This is a very fast-moving problem, which the sector and legislation has been slow to address,” Newton adds. “When I started researching it in 2009, I couldn’t believe what was available and how little research had been done. On some sites you can even enter your course code and the name of your lecturer and the writer will tailor an essay to that. To the man on the street,” he adds, “it’s very odd that this sort of thing is legal.”
Universities are equipped to detect old-fashioned, cut-and-paste plagiarism. Software such as Turnitin, which claims 97% of UK universities as customers, flags up passages it identifies in existing sources. But it cannot detect an original essay written by someone else. Even when lecturers suspect foul play, it can be hard to know how to act. “I had one instance recently when a student received a much higher mark than expected,” says a senior lecturer at a London university, who asked not to be named. “His work had a level of fluency and sophistication of thought that hadn’t been seen. But I wasn’t 100% sure, because I think he wrote parts of the essay in his own style to throw me off, so I left it. It’s a minefield.”
Opinion is divided over how to respond, however, and whether tighter rules or laws risk driving would-be cheats to the darker edges of the “model answers industry”, as essay mills prefer to be called. Many students have reported being ripped off with shoddy work, or none at all. But there is also concern that contract plagiarism, while obviously wrong, is a symptom of what critics describe as the commodification of higher education.
International students in the UK now pay between around £15,000 and £40,000 a year in tuition fees. Those from outside the EU paid £4.2bn in fees in 2014-15, almost 30% of universities’ income from fees – and almost 13% of their total income.
Universities depend on foreign students with deep pockets, which is why they are fighting government plans to bring numbers down. Dave Tomar, a former mill writer in the US, says this means universities too often sell places to ill-equipped students, many of whom arrive with limited written English or awareness of British academic norms. “The vast majority of students who cheat aren’t lazy, but struggling,” he says. “They have invested so much that they don’t want to blow it by failing.”
In 10 years, Tomar, 37, says he wrote about 4,000 assignments for customers, including hundreds in Britain. Before he quit in 2013, he says he earned $60,000 (almost £50,000) a year; he says writers generally get about half the essay fee. “Whatever their motivations, this is a symptom, not the illness,” he adds from his home in Philadelphia, where he now writes about education reform after the success of The Shadow Scholar, a book about his former life. “We need a broader conversation about how educational systems are failing these students such that they end up in college way over their heads.”
Now a degree is a commodity, no wonder more students are cheating | Poppy Noor
While studying a language at Cambridge University, Claire (not her real name) wrote essays during her first year, and also understood that most of her customers were not British. “You have a UK system reliant on foreign students while, through the backdoor, companies are devaluing the very degree certificates that attract all that foreign money in the first place,” she says in an email, describing the result as “a wonderful downward spiral of devaluation”.
Newton accepts that, in some places, students arrive without sufficient skills to complete good written work. But he says students know when they are crossing a line, and that penalties for plagiarism are generally tough already (cheats at Swansea are expelled). What has changed, he adds, is the increasing accessibility and slick presentation of many of the sites, which appeal to students who might not otherwise resort to cheating. “The easier it is, the more likely it is to happen,” he says.
Not all essay mills, which began to proliferate over a decade ago, do much to put off would-be cheats. OK Essay, which last year removed adverts from London Underground stations near universities after complaints, claims on its homepage to have more than 10,000 customers. “Looking for experts to ‘Write my essay for me’? Choose us and we won’t disappoint you!” Deep in the terms and conditions, the mill says it will not be liable “for the outcome or consequences of submission [of] the paper to any academic institution”. Nowhere does it explicitly advise against it.
Posing as a struggling history student, I call the customer support line for clarification. “If I want to use the essay as my own work, is that possible?” I ask. “I’m not able to tell you whether it’s possible or not. We just write the paper for you and you can use it for what you want,” the agent says. The company says it is based in Sheffield, but there is no address on the website, which also hides its domain registration details. The terms and conditions say the site is owned by Elabama Inc, a company registered in Panama. “So it would be at my own risk?” I ask. “You can just use it at your own risk – it’s what our disclaimer says on our website. It’s meant to serve as example … You can get it, read it, shake it and if you like it you can use it, if you don’t like it you can fix it to [be] like you want it and use it.” When I call back as a journalist, I am given an email address but none of my questions are answered, and despite further calls and emails, there is no response to the suggestion that the company appears to condone cheating.
Claire wrote for Oxbridge Essays, a prominent site with offices in London. “It was clear to everyone involved what was going on,” she recalls. Yet she found the work stimulating as well as lucrative after quitting a “soul-destroying” temp job. “I didn’t worry too much about the ethics at first because I felt bitter about the fact this was the only way I could find work that was interesting and rewarding,” she says. “I got paid £200 for the first one. I was 19 and that was a lot of money.”
In 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Oxbridge Essays had breached its code by guaranteeing “that you will receive at least the grade you order”. The implication of the promise contradicted the company’s terms, which prohibit the submission of its essays, the authority found. Philip Malamatinas, who launched the site in 2006, declines to answer questions. Nor does he respond to Claire’s claim that the company knew what was going on. “We work with thousands of students who come to us having been let down by a system designed to penalise those for whom English is a second language, and who typically pay three or four times as much as UK students in tuition fees,” he writes in a statement. “Sadly, our universities are simply too stretched to provide the same level of support to all and as a result, students are turning to private enterprises to subsidise their educational needs.”
Mills are not the only people making a case for model answers. “I think they’re incredibly valuable, especially for international students,” says Alexander Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent Higher Education (formerly Study UK), which represents more than 130 private institutions. He attended a QAA plagiarism forum before the publication of last year’s report. “We’d be happy for there to be a national database of essays. If you made them accessible then the demand for essay mills goes out the window [see footnote].”
Universities blame others for plagiarism. They need to look at themselves
Newton, who also sat on the forum, is not convinced, preferring “to show students how things are structured and what it looks like to write an essay”. Either way, he adds: “When you can give a precise title and specify the grade and the referencing and sources, that’s something very different.” No essay site I approach will explain why, if their work is only intended to be used as a model, they are so keen to guarantee originality, sometimes two days before a deadline, if not to help students elude plagiarism detection software.
Newton believes part of the solution must be a requirement for more face-to-face and practical assessment. Proudfoot says institutions should find resources for essay-writing and critical-thinking classes, as well as tutorial support for students who “find themselves backed into a corner”. Claire agrees. She gave up when the demands of her own studies left her too busy to write for other students. “My dad also told me, ‘You might not be thinking about the wider repercussions of this now, but think about later,’ and I thought – you know, you might be right.”
• The following footnote was added on 6 March 2017: after publication, Alexander Proudfoot asked us to clarify that when he said “the demand for essay mills goes out the window”, he meant “the argument for essay mills goes out the window”.